07 Jan/19

Diacritic

Diacritic – Word of the day – EVS Translations
Diacritic – Word of the day – EVS Translations

What is a diacritic? For starters, if this is your native language, you can definitely be excused from knowing what they are. In English, unless we are using loan words from another language, these are something we are not familiar with, mostly because our language doesn’t use them. On the other hand many other languages are familiar with the little marks around letters that serve to differentiate the sound that the letter makes.

Coming from the Latinized version of the Greek diakritikos, meaning ‘that separates or distinguishes’, the term is a combination of the prefix dia, meaning ‘between’, and the root word krinein, meaning ‘to separate, decide, judge’. Essentially, this is what the term does. Think of words like the Spanish año (year) using the tilde, the accent mark in the French term (there) that changes it from la (the), or the cedilla under the “s” in the Romanian word for fish, peşte. Comparatively, though we don’t really have diacritics, to differentiate sounds in English, we have to take note of the surrounding letters in order to change the sound: for example, look at the sound of the “h” in shoe compared to thought.

The first known use of the term comes from the writings of Puritan Calvinist Theophilus Gale, who, in his 1677 work, The Court of the Gentiles: Part III, recorded that: “Plato in his Repub. 9. makes a Philosopher to be ὄργανον διακριτικόν, a diacritic or very critic instrument.” While the term itself was simply meant as ‘an item that served to distinguish or differentiate’, it was understood that it applied in a grammatical sense.

Oddly, though the term was always meant in a grammatical sense, it would be almost another 200 years before it would start being identified specifically as referring to the marks themselves: this first occurred in the 1866 writings of English phonetician Alexander John Ellis, who stated: “Lepsius’s Standard Alphabet in which..as many as two or three diacritics are applied to a single bod” in Transactions of the Philological Society.

Though it is naturally easiest for us to understand the values in languages that use the Latin alphabet, diacritics are certainly not exclusive to it. They can also be found in the Cyrillic alphabet, in Arabic and Hebrew, in Turkish, in Sanskrit and Indic, and even in Korean.

Still, they are not always the easiest to use: considering the rise of technology, globalization, and the simple fact that most of this advancement occurred in the Anglophone world, many aspects of this development, such as data formatting and keyboard layout had been done without diacritics in mind. Though this has led some to speculate that, in order to efficiently process information worldwide, diacritics will one day become obsolete, by altering keyboard layout, adding an overlay for diacritics (like you would with any foreign language), and by updates to Unicode allowing modern computers to understand diacritics, it seems like we’ll be wondering about those little dots and lines well into the future.

What is a diacritic? For starters, if this is your native language, you can definitely be excused from knowing what they are. In English, unless we are using loan words from another language, these are something we are not familiar with, mostly because our language doesn’t use them. On the other hand many other languages are familiar with the little marks around letters that serve to differentiate the sound that the letter makes.

Coming from the Latinized version of the Greek diakritikos, meaning ‘that separates or distinguishes’, the term is a combination of the prefix dia, meaning ‘between’, and the root word krinein, meaning ‘to separate, decide, judge’. Essentially, this is what the term does. Think of words like the Spanish año (year) using the tilde, the accent mark in the French term (there) that changes it from la (the), or the cedilla under the “s” in the Romanian word for fish, peşte. Comparatively, though we don’t really have diacritics, to differentiate sounds in English, we have to take note of the surrounding letters in order to change the sound: for example, look at the sound of the “h” in shoe compared to thought.

The first known use of the term diacritic comes from the writings of Puritan Calvinist Theophilus Gale, who, in his 1677 work, The Court of the Gentiles: Part III, recorded that: “Plato in his Repub. 9. makes a Philosopher to be ὄργανον διακριτικόν, a diacritic or very critic instrument.” While the term itself was simply meant as ‘an item that served to distinguish or differentiate’, it was understood that it applied in a grammatical sense.

Oddly, though the term diacritic was always meant in a grammatical sense, it would be almost another 200 years before it would start being identified specifically as referring to the marks themselves: this first occurred in the 1866 writings of English phonetician Alexander John Ellis, who stated: “Lepsius’s Standard Alphabet in which..as many as two or three diacritics are applied to a single bod” in Transactions of the Philological Society.

Though it is naturally easiest for us to understand the values in languages that use the Latin alphabet, diacritics are certainly not exclusive to it. They can also be found in the Cyrillic alphabet, in Arabic and Hebrew, in Turkish, in Sanskrit and Indic, and even in Korean.

Still, they are not always the easiest to use: considering the rise of technology, globalization, and the simple fact that most of this advancement occurred in the Anglophone world, many aspects of this development, such as data formatting and keyboard layout had been done without diacritics in mind. Though this has led some to speculate that, in order to efficiently process information worldwide, diacritics will one day become obsolete, by altering keyboard layout, adding an overlay for diacritics (like you would with any foreign language), and by updates to Unicode allowing modern computers to understand diacritics, it seems like we’ll be wondering about those little dots and lines well into the future.